Advocacy sometimes can be an idea, an intuition that opens a path to hope and light on social, cultural and historical realities that seem to keep themselves in darkness and only a source of suffering that had produced death in the heart.
"He is your husband; you must have children with him." Teresa listened to these words with death in her heart. Girls and young women all over the world have felt the collapse of their dreams, illusions and hopes through the sound of these words. Words that turned their young lives into hell and often into tragedy.
Every week, young women’s stories come to the limelight when, in order to refuse a forced marriage, are beaten to death by their family or their social group or experience family violence of those who try to impose a culturally acquired right on them.
The data on early marriages is impressive: about 650 million women alive today were married as minors, thus into a marriage at least psychologically forced.
In 2016, forced marriages numbered 15.4 million, 88% of their victims were young women, 37% were under the age of 18 and 44% were under 15 at the time of marriage.
Mobility made the phenomenon spread. In 2016, one person a day was forced to marry in Switzerland and in just over three years there were 905 registered forced marriages. Betrothed to a family friend when she was still a minor, Giulia rebelled, ran away from home and filed a complaint against her parents. She escaped the fate but she wrote, "My parents wanted me dead". In 2020, the UK's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) provided advice or support in 759 cases related to a possible forced marriage.
However, the “Teresa” we are talking about was not a minor. The person who uttered those words of an absurd tradition that had the flavor of a death sentence for her was not a violent father or uncle. It was the Comboni Father Orwhalder, her spiritual guide, and Teresa Grigolini, her real name, was a nun, a missionary, a Comboni Sister. Those words did not ring out on the walls of a traditional family, but in a prison camp, in Sudan, the same Sudan that we see on our screens and the front pages with breaking news, such as after the military coup of October 2021.
From 1882 to 1898, the Mahdi, a self-proclaimed successor of the Prophet Muhammad, imposed Islamic fanaticism as a religious reform and as a path to independence for Sudan. Foreign nuns, missionaries, lay people who had arrived on the spot as colonial employees or traders were taken prisoners: some died almost immediately, others chose apostasy in exchange for freedom, others lived in inhumane conditions so as not to betray their personal integrity, their faith or their vocation.
A special threat weighed on the nuns: no woman in Muslim culture can live alone; she must belong to a man. They would therefore be given, sold to new masters’ harems. The threat was so concrete that a diplomat, the Austrian governor of Sudan, also a prisoner, suggested, as an escape, fake marriages with Orthodox Greeks who were also prisoners: appearances would be safe and the lives of the nuns too. However, time passed and after three years the Mahdists saw that in those marriages that did not produce children and hinting of deception threatened to kill all prisoners starting with the sisters.
Teresa was from a wealthy family and received a good education. Fascinated by Comboni, she decided to follow him in his dream of regenerating Africa with Africa. Comboni appreciated so much her gifts as a woman and as a Christian that he made her the superior of the four sisters’ group who on December 10 1877 left Italy with him to Sudan for the first mission.
Comboni died just before the start of the Mahadia. In the prison camp, father Orwhalder assumed the responsibility of guiding the prisoners and decided that at least one of the marriages should become a real one: to the birth of a child was entrusted the salvation of all. Teresa was the superior and her service would be to sacrifice her life.
She accepted with death in her heart, exclusively to "save the sisters from worse evils". Children were born, her gesture protected the prisoners until 1898 when the British announced victory over the Madhi. All the prisoners gradually resumed their former life, some in the convent and some in their own family: "for me alone - wrote Teresa - there will be no convent or family anymore and my slavery will last until my death." In her life, there was now Dimitrj Cocorempas, whom she had neither chosen nor loved but to whom she was tied, like the countless victims of forced marriages, by the children she gave him. She was to assist him even when he became violent in his long illness; she was close to him on his path back to faith and closed his eyes in 1915.
Three years later, she returned to Italy, with her grown-up children, but she had to face a new tragedy: the great embarrassment of her relatives and of the town, "because everyone knew that I had been a nun".
The congregation refused to welcome her back and Teresa "savored to the full the incomprehension and exclusion", the unfair judgment sometimes unaware of those she continued to love and to which she felt united forever. She died on October 21, 1931, at the age of 81.
Time did not remember her, only the civil register kept the date. In silence, just as the hundreds of faithful mothers who die every day for the love of their children after years of personal and social loneliness due to a forced marriage.
Some 80 years pass by before some courageous Comboni sisters begin to recognize her "martyrdom", which lasted almost half a century. Tens of years, indeed centuries would pass before the courage of a simple and sometimes misunderstood Pope will claim the value of so many young women victims of forced marriages and domestic violence.
In 1995, 60 years after her death, Teresa's body was finally welcomed among the tombs of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, and in 2012, the process of beatification of Teresa Grigolini Cocorempas slowly began. It will someday pay homage to a life of slavery that for the love of others became service and martyrdom.
Each year, on February 8th, the Churches, animated by the interfaith movement Talitha Kum, renew their commitment to work for the freedom of millions of victims from the new slavery, the trafficking in persons. A phenomenon that sinks millions of young women into forced marriage or a life of sexual violence, without the faith that kept nurturing and supporting Teresa’s life for 50 years.
Would not the icon of Teresa from the altars give them hope? Even life forced into an absurd coexistence due to the traditional violence of a culture that is struggling to die still has a meaning and a richness that welcomed in the end will bear fruit.
Photo. 1875 Teresa Grigolini in Sudan.